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Embracing the veil

Special to The Washington Post
LONDON -- I used to look at veiled women as
quiet, oppressed creatures -- until I was
captured by the Taliban.
In September 2001, just 15 days after the
terrorist attacks on the United States, I sneaked
into Afghanistan, clad in a head-to-toe blue
burqa, intending to write a newspaper account
of life under the repressive regime. Instead, I
was discovered, arrested and detained for 10
days. I spat and swore at my captors; they
called me a "bad" woman but let me go after I
promised to read the Quran and study Islam.
(I'm not sure who was happier when I was freed
-- they or I.)
Back home in London, I kept my word about
studying Islam -- and was amazed by what I
discovered. I'd been expecting Quranic chapters
on how to beat your wife and oppress your
daughters; instead, I found passages promoting
the liberation of women. Two and a half years
after my capture, I converted to Islam,
provoking a mixture of astonishment,
disappointment and encouragement among
friends and relatives.
With disgust and dismay, I watched here in
Britain as former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw
described the Muslim niqab -- a face veil that
reveals only the eyes -- as an unwelcome barrier
to integration, with Prime Minister Tony Blair,
writer Salman Rushdie and even Italian Prime
Minister Romano Prodi leaping to his defense.
Having been on both sides of the veil, I can tell
you that most Western male politicians and
journalists who lament the oppression of
women in the Islamic world have no idea what
they are talking about. They go on about veils,
child brides, female circumcision, honor killings
and forced marriages, and they wrongly blame
Islam for all this, their arrogance surpassed
only by their ignorance.
These cultural issues and customs have nothing
to do with Islam. A careful reading of the
Quran shows that just about everything that
Western feminists fought for in the 1970s was
available to Muslim women 1,400 years ago.
Women in Islam are considered equal to men in
spirituality, education and worth, and a
woman's gift for childbirth and child-rearing is
regarded as a positive attribute.
When Islam offers women so much, why are
Western men so obsessed with Muslim women's
attire? Even British government ministers
Gordon Brown and John Reid have made
disparaging remarks about the niqab -- and
they hail from Scotland, where men wear skirts.

A personal statement
When I converted to Islam and began wearing a
headscarf, the repercussions were enormous.
All I did was cover my head and hair -- but I
instantly became a second-class citizen. I knew
I'd hear from the odd Islamophobe, but I didn't
expect so much open hostility.
Cabs passed me by at night, their "for hire"
lights glowing. One cabbie, after dropping off a
white passenger in front of me, glared at me
when I rapped on his ******; he drove off.
Another said, "Don't leave a bomb in the back
seat" and asked, "Where's bin Laden hiding?"
Yes, it is a religious obligation for Muslim
women to dress modestly, but the majority of
Muslim women I know like wearing the hijab,
which leaves the face uncovered, though a few
prefer the niqab. It is a personal statement: My
dress tells you that I am a Muslim and that I
expect to be treated respectfully, much as a
Wall Street banker would say that a business
suit defines him as an executive to be taken
seriously. Among converts to the faith like me,
the attention of men who confront women with
inappropriate, leering behavior is not tolerable.
I was a Western feminist for many years, but
I've discovered that Muslim feminists are more
radical than their secular counterparts. We
hate those ghastly beauty pageants and tried to
stop laughing in 2003 when judges of the Miss
Earth competition hailed the emergence of a
bikini-clad Miss Afghanistan, Vida Samadzai,
as a giant leap for women's liberation. They
even gave Samadzai a special award for
"representing the victory of women's rights."
Some young Muslim feminists also consider the
hijab and the niqab political symbols, a way of
rejecting Western excesses such as binge
drinking, casual sex and drug use. What is more
liberating: being judged on the length of your
skirt and the size of your surgically enhanced
breasts, or being judged on your character and
intelligence? In Islam, superiority is achieved
through piety -- not beauty, wealth, power,
position or sex.
I didn't know whether to scream or laugh when
Italy's Prodi joined the debate by declaring that
it is "common sense" not to wear the niqab
because it makes social relations "more
difficult." Nonsense. If this were the case, why
are cellphones, land lines, e-mail, ****
messaging and fax machines in daily use? And
no one switches off the radio because they can't
see the presenter's face.
Under Islam, I am respected. It tells me that I
have a right to an education and that it is my
duty to seek out knowledge, regardless of
whether I am single or married. Nowhere in the
framework of Islam are we told that women
must wash, clean or **** for men.
As for how Muslim men are allowed to beat
their wives -- it's simply not true. Critics of
Islam will quote random Quranic verses or
hadith, but usually out of con****. If a man
does raise a finger against his wife, he is not
allowed to leave a mark on her body, which is
the Quran's way of saying, "Don't beat your
wife, stupid."

And in the West ...?

It is not just Muslim men who must re-evaluate
the place and treatment of women. According to
a recent National Domestic Violence Hotline
survey, 4 million American women experience a
serious assault by a partner during an average
12-month period. More than three women are
killed by their husbands and boyfriends every
day -- that is nearly 5,500 since 9-11.
Violent men don't come from any particular
religious or cultural category; one in three
women around the world has been beaten,
coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her
lifetime, according to the hotline survey. This is
a global problem that transcends religion,
wealth, class, race and culture.
But in the West, men still believe that they are
superior to women. They still receive better pay
for equal work -- whether in the mailroom or
the boardroom -- and still treat women as
sexualized commodities whose power and
influence flow directly from their appearance.
And for those who are still trying to claim that
Islam oppresses women, recall this 1992
statement from the Rev. Pat Robertson, offering
his views on empowered women: Feminism is a
"socialist, anti-family political movement that
encourages women to leave their husbands, kill
their children, practice witchcraft, destroy
capitalism and become lesbians."
Now you tell me who is civilized and who is not.